Colossians 3.18-4.1: The Household Code, Living under Christ (Part 1)

house

After providing the picture of the new humanity in Christ, Paul gives instruction for various roles within the household. Thus, the new community begins in the home.

3.18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, [a] do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. 22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Those who do wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. 4.1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven (TNIV; cf. Eph 5.21-6.9).

Instructions for various roles within the household—often dubbed “household codes”—were common in antiquity, and fell under the Greco-Roman ethical topic of household management (Moo, 293).  While Colossians 3.18-4.1 bears many similarities to these forms there are some major differences as well.  The most distinctive of these differences is that virtually every edict is governed by some reference to “the Lord” (seven times referring to Christ in the Greek); thus, the goal is not just to live according to the values of society but to live a life appropriately under the Lordship of Christ.

With all the progressive movements in the last so many years, this text has taken a lot of flak.  But I think if we hear Paul out here, and appropriately read this section in the historical context that it is found, we’ll be able to see the positive and redemptive trajectory that Paul sets forth in these verses.

I think the problem really starts with us: we like to control, correct, or point out the faults of others.  That’s why it’s important, as we look at each group, to consider first and foremost that which applies to you rather than to your spouse, child, etc.  Let Jesus take care of others, and let Him work in you.  As my mother used to say, “You worry about Nicholas.”  Also keep in mind that this passage was never meant to serve as a list of rules to be enforced; instead, it was intended to sketch out the obligations we have toward one another in the particular lot we find ourselves in society and in Christ.

Wives

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. There’s a popular verse among women.  This text has obviously been misused and abused, particularly in how submission has been understood and advanced.  What does it mean to submit?  Here submission entails voluntarily giving up one’s own rights for the sake of another; “… a readiness to renounce one’s own will for the sake of others” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 8:45).  Thus, wives are called to voluntarily give up or put aside their own agenda, in deference to their husband’s interests.  Note how this captures the theme of putting others first that we saw in the previous section on living the new life.  This is fitting in the Lord (it may be appropriate to recall Christ’s example in Philippians 2).  Wives, this is your spiritual obligation in the Lord.

*Due to the abuses and misunderstandings that have come from this verse, we should probably caution that submission of the wife to the husband is only necessary so long as the husband’s interests align with God’s will.  Remember, this whole passage is about living under the Lordship of Christ; so, submission is owed first to him, the ultimate head of the household.

Husbands

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Husbands, fathers, and masters were not used to having their rights restricted like Paul does in these verses (Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos, 296).  In your typical “household code,” if the husband was addressed, the purpose would be to instruct him on how to maintain order in the household, but telling the husband to love his wife does not fit this purpose (Moo, Colossians, 302).  Paul’s command to “love your wives” is therefore completely revolutionary.  What’s in mind here is the same sacrificial love (agape) that we studied in the previous section (recall discussion on 3.14).  Therefore, Christ’s sacrificial love is to serve as the example for Christian husbands in loving their wives.  This is spelled out more clearly in the Ephesians parallel, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her. . .” (5.25).

As difficult as submission is, husbands, I’m inclined to say that you have an even greater responsibility on your hands. Love your wife as Christ loved the church.

Essentially, the responsibilities within the marriage relationship can be summarized in this way:  the wife must give her life up and the husband must lay his down (Cf. McKnight, 1 Peter, 189).  So, while at first glance this text might seem archaic and misogynistic, the model put forth here is actually quite radical, especially for a first century context. 

Children

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Although it’s difficult to determine the age of the children here, the fact that they’re addressed is significant.  Children are responsible people and we probably need to do a better job of recognizing this and treating them as such (cf. Eph 6.4).  So, if there are any children or perhaps teenagers reading my blog, pay attention: obey your parents in all circumstances; this is pleasing (literally) “in the Lord” (i.e., again, under the Lordship of Christ, in the new humanity; cf. Exod 20.12).

Fathers

Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. The focus of reciprocity between father and child was not common in the ancient household codes (Moo, 306).  The concern for the children demonstrated here is therefore remarkable.

In today’s culture the command probably applies to mothers as well as fathers, since mothers are often responsible for disciplining their children (whether due to dad being at work, single mom raising children, etc.).  In the first century, fathers were the main disciplinarian figures responsible for giving orders to the children.  Though, it seems that Paul seeks to temper their authority here by warning them of the potentially harmful effects that excessive discipline can have.  This suggests that the children in this community needed more encouragement than discipline.  Discipline is obviously a must, but it shouldn’t be done in such a way that the child loses heart.  If Paul were to instruct parents of our day, what do you think he would write?  Any thoughts?

That’s enough to chew on for now… we’ll look at the servant/master relationship in part 2.

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4 Responses to Colossians 3.18-4.1: The Household Code, Living under Christ (Part 1)

  1. ljwscherer says:

    Good job, Nic. Like you said, it’s a lot to chew on but you explained it very well. Thanks for all the time you devote to this study.

  2. Nic says:

    Good deal… my pleasure.

  3. Clint says:

    Great word here, Nic. You took a passage that is usually incendiary, but worded it nicely and had a light tone.

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